The smartphone battle has become mostly a war between two companies, with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) dominating the handset market. A third player, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), has found a backdoor into the fight with its Android operating system, which powers the majority of phones.

It's not impossible for another player to get into the field, but it has become less likely. BlackBerry has all but disappeared when it comes to smartphones, Microsoft has mostly abandoned Windows Phone, and Amazon struck out with its Fire phone. 

That leaves Apple and Samsung battling for the top of the market. Alphabet's Android is used on Samsung phones and on the vast majority of handsets sold overall. What was once a crowded field has become a market dominated by these three players.

A person holds a smartphone.

Apple and Samsung dominate the handset market. Image source: Getty Images.

Which company sells the most phones?

Samsung has recovered from the negative publicity created by its exploding phone issues. The company closed Q1 2017 with 23.3% of the global market, according to data from IDC. That gives it a substantial lead over Apple, which controls 14.7% of the market, well down from the 18.2% share it held in Q4.

The difference between the two companies is that Samsung has a much broader range of products. IDC credited that for much of the company's success.

"Substantial discounts on the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge helped move last year's flagships as they make way for the new S8 and S8+," the research firm wrote. "Outside of the high end, the product mix continues to shift toward more affordable models."

Samsung has everything from high-end phones to entry-level models for emerging markets. Apple has expanded into the mid-range with its iPhone SE, but its volume is constrained by not having an entry-level model. That's an intentional decision by the company, which has eschewed selling cheap devices to gain market share.

Apple has also been hurt in 2017 by the expectation that a new iPhone will be released in September or October. The iPhone 8, or whatever the company calls it, is expected to be a major revamp for the tenth anniversary of the phone.

od Samsung Apple Huawei OPPO vivo Others
2016Q1 23.80% 15.40% 8.40% 5.90% 4.40% 42.10%
2016Q2 22.70% 11.70% 9.30% 6.60% 4.80% 45.00%
2016Q3 20.90% 12.50% 9.30% 7.10% 5.90% 44.30%
2016Q4 18.00% 18.20% 10.50% 7.30% 5.70% 40.20%
2017Q1 23.30% 14.70% 10.00% 7.50% 5.50% 39.00%

Data source: IDC.

Android is king

While Alphabet's Google has not had much success with its branded handsets, it has made Android the dominant operating system. At the end of Q1 Android had 85% market share while Apple held 14.7%.

"The discussion around Android's share of the smartphone market became irrelevant a few years back when it became clear that devices running Google's OS would continue to capture roughly 85% of the worldwide smartphone volume," wrote IDC.

What happens next?

For the immediate future, expect the status quo. Some market share will likely shift back to Apple with the iPhone 8, but the general trends will remain the same. It's hard to see anything interrupting the dominance of Apple and Samsung handsets, along with the Android operating system, until a major technology shift disrupts the market. That may happen someday, but it's not on the immediate horizon.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.